Podcast: A “‘fireside chat” with CIA General Counsel, the Hon. Kate Heinzelman

The recently completed 29th Annual National Security Law Conference sponsored by Duke’s Center on Law, Ethics and National Security had a bumper crop of truly spectacular speakers, and we’ll be introducing videos of most of the presentations on Lawfire® in the coming weeks. 

I’m extremely pleased to inaugurate the process with the “fireside chat” with the Hon. Kate Heinzelman, the CIA General Counsel. The video can be found here.

I found Ms. Heinzelman to be extraordinarily engaging, and I very much appreciated how readily she shared her experiences and advice with the conference attendees. She presented a perspective on the practice of law in the CIA that was both informative and intriguing.  This is a very impressive–and personable–public servant.

What will you hear?  Below is a reflection paper penned by one of my very talented International Law of Armed Conflict students, Duke Law 2L Olivia Cardenas (published with her permission), and it will give you a good idea as to what to expect.

There were many aspects of the Fireside Chat with Hon. Kate Heinzelman that I found both interesting and insightful. As someone who is on the precipice of entering the professional world, I value in-depth conversations about what makes someone a successful lawyer and person.

I thought it was helpful to hear the anecdote that Ms. Heinzelman shared about her father encouraging her to defer law school and work at the President’s Commission on WMDs. It can seem daunting to deviate from decisive plans, so it’s always useful to hear about the positive opportunities that can emerge from taking measured risks.

I also enjoyed hearing how Ms. Heinzelman approaches counseling her clients. Ms. Heinzelman emphasized that she is incredibly explicit when speaking to people and tells them “First, let me answer your specific legal question.” Then, she makes it clear when she is providing her input on non-legal strategy matters.

When providing her opinion on matters that aren’t strictly legal, she always considers first whether the advice being sought is “within the parameters of [her] expertise” before providing it.

As Ms. Heinzelman emphasized, lawyers can be particularly adept at assessing risk and addressing process-based issues. But these capabilities on their own are not the reason clients seek the advice of lawyers; a lawyer’s value-add in challenging situations stems from trust.

I thought it was interesting that Ms. Heinzelman credits decades of lawyers in the Office of the General Counsel who have built up the profession’s credibility over time. By acting as effective counselors year after year, clients in the CIA have become more willing to come to lawyers for advice that is not strictly legal.

Her discussion about preparedness also connected well with her comments about trust. A lesson I took away from her “You don’t have time to look at the book” anecdote was the importance of knowing the law thoroughly. As Ms. Heinzelman said, you need to know certain aspects of the law instinctively. You don’t have time to look at the book; the answer has to be muscle memory.

This advice is important, and I especially appreciated that she connected it to real-world consequences. Being prepared is about much more than just making yourself look competent; it is about being able to flag legal issues immediately when they first come up. If you are unprepared and lack a clear understanding of the relevant body of law, you may fail to adequately address issues as they arise or implement proper processes.

I also enjoyed Ms. Heinzelman’s emphasis on the importance of communication. As law students, we are often told about the value of precise writing. But another important skill that is often given less attention is the ability to boil down a complex set of information into a short elevator briefing. As Ms. Heinzelman emphasized, the ability to distill complex scenarios and legal issues into a succinct, accurate message is incredibly important.

This skill also translates to private practice; clients are often strapped for time and appreciate lawyers who are able to brief them effectively. Beyond being succinct, Ms. Heinzelman emphasized that good client communication requires the lawyers to explain legal concepts in a way that is straight-forward and understandable for a layperson.

Lastly, I found it interesting that despite all of the technological change and instability facing the world, concern for the safety and well-being of people is what keeps Ms. Heinzelman up at night. While I think all lawyers should be highly invested in their clients’ well-being, this concern is understandably on a heightened level at the CIA where clients are “going places where others cannot go and doing things others cannot do.”

This level of concern also reflects Ms. Heinzelman’s investment in building deep relationships, which I believe is an important aspect of being an effective lawyer and leader.

To hear all of the Honorable Kate Heinzelman’s comments from the LENS conference, be sure to check out the video here.

Unless otherwise indicated Conference speakers are expressing their personal opinions, and not necessarily those of their employer (to include the U.S. government), the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security, Duke University, or any other person or entity (see also here)

Remember what we like to say on Lawfire®: gather the facts, examine the law, evaluate the arguments – and then decide for yourself!


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